More Jail if you Fail

Research by USC graduate students helped persuade California lawmakers to make the GED a condition for parole or probation.


Orlando Love and Lezlee S. Cox
Research doesn't get any more applied than this: data collected by a pair of USC graduate students has effectively latched the much-lamented revolving door of California prisons.
Working on behalf of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches (LAM) — an inner-city, church-based community organization — USC research assistants Lezlee S. Cox and Orlando Love gathered evidence that helped persuade then-Los Angeles District Attorney Gil Garcetti to write a first-of-its-kind bill requiring ex-offenders to work toward a high school diploma or its equivalent as a condition of probation or parole.
The same documentation was used to convince L.A. County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and Assemblyman Carl Washington to get on the bandwagon. Signed by Gov. Pete Wilson last year, the bill sets up a five-year pilot project authorizing judges at the downtown Los Angeles, Compton and Inglewood courthouses to require that non-violent offenders enroll in classes toward a GED before completion of probation. The bill, which became effective Jan. 1, passed with bipartisan support.

Cox and Love are among a group of dedicated scholars associated with USC’s Center for Religion and Civic Culture, which lays its academic resources at the service of faith-based community and economic development projects, says its executive director, Donald E. Miller, who is also a USC professor of religion. CRCC research assistants have documented the effect of recent welfare reform legislation, church-state relations in Los Angeles, church-based economic projects, Korean-American churches and the history of the city’s black churches.
“We are not simply an Ivory Tower think-tank,” Miller says. “At least half of what we are doing is involved in increasing the social capital within the city of Los Angeles.”

The prison revolving-door research was prompted by an appeal from the Rev. Richard Byrd, president of a nonprofit group of 37 area churches. The LAM effort began two years ago when members decided to stop simply complaining about high crime rates and do something about it.
“Seventy percent of the returning prison population who come back to our community can’t read or write,” says Byrd, who is pastor of Christ Unity Center/Unity Center of African Spirituality. “We saw there needed to be a change in policy that makes sure our young men and women have the capacity to establish businesses and get jobs.”
The nonprofit group turned to USC because “we understood that we don’t live in a vacuum,” says Byrd. “We needed an authority that could frame [our concerns] in a formal academic sense. We are partnering with the greatest university around; it happens to be in our backyard.”



Why Rocco Can't Read

- the phenomenon of ex-offenders returning to jail - is clearly tied to illiteracy and joblessness. However, when prisoners get an education, the penitentiary rate-of-return plunges.
"A 1994 study of Texas inmates showed that those who receive a GED had 15 percent recidivism, compared to 35 percent who don't obtain the degree," says Lexlee S. Cox, a third-year doctoral student in political science." In Massachusetts, 50 percent recidivism rates dropped to 16 percent for those who participate in work and school programs."
High recidivism rates are particularly devastating to the black community, says Cox, whose work focuses on the history of African Americans in prisons. "In California, African-American adult males constitute 3.7 percent of the state's population, but 39 percent are in prison - in jail, on probation or on parole.
"Furthermore, within this disproportionate number, a large percentage of the African-American males cannot read or write at a functional level for obtaining employment. According to a national study, black males are arrested 5.8 times mor ethan whites and are sentences to jail or prison 9.8 times more than whites."

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